By John Bolton
Negotiations for an “interim” arrangement over Iran’s nuclear weapons program finally succeeded this past weekend, as Security Council foreign ministers (plus Germany) flew to Geneva to meet their Iranian counterpart. After raising expectations of a deal by first convening on November 8-10, it would have been beyond humiliating to gather again without result. So agreement was struck despite solemn incantations earlier that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
This interim agreement is badly skewed from America’s perspective. Iran retains its full capacity to enrich uranium, thus abandoning a decade of Western insistence and Security Council resolutions that Iran stop all uranium-enrichment activities. Allowing Iran to continue enriching, and despite modest (indeed, utterly inadequate) measures to prevent it from increasing its enriched-uranium stockpiles and its overall nuclear infrastructure, lays the predicate for Iran fully enjoying its “right” to enrichment in any “final” agreement. Indeed, the interim agreement itself acknowledges that a “comprehensive solution” will “involve a mutually defined enrichment program.” This is not, as the Obama administration leaked before the deal became public, a “compromise” on Iran’s claimed “right” to enrichment. This is abject surrender by the United States.
In exchange for superficial concessions, Iran achieved three critical breakthroughs. First, it bought time to continue all aspects of its nuclear-weapons program the agreement does not cover (centrifuge manufacturing and testing; weaponization research and fabrication; and its entire ballistic missile program). Indeed, given that the interim agreement contemplates periodic renewals, Iran may have gained all of the time it needs to achieve weaponization not of simply a handful of nuclear weapons, but of dozens or more.
Second, Iran has gained legitimacy. This central banker of international terrorism and flagrant nuclear proliferator is once again part of the international club. Much as the Syria chemical-weapons agreement buttressed Bashar al-Assad, the mullahs have escaped the political deep freezer.
Third, Iran has broken the psychological momentum and effect of the international economic sanctions. While estimates differ on Iran’s precise gain, it is considerable ($7 billion is the lowest estimate), and presages much more. Tehran correctly assessed that a mere six-months’ easing of sanctions will make it extraordinarily hard for the West to reverse direction, even faced with systematic violations of Iran’s nuclear pledges. Major oil-importing countries (China, India, South Korea, and others) were already chafing under U.S. sanctions, sensing President Obama had no stomach either to impose sanctions on them, or pay the domestic political price of granting further waivers.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s earlier warning that this was “the deal of the century” for Iran has unfortunately been vindicated. Given such an inadequate deal, what motivated Obama to agree? The inescapable conclusion is that, the mantra notwithstanding, the White House actually did prefer a bad deal to the diplomatic process grinding to a halt. This deal was a “hail Mary” to buy time. Why?
Buying time for its own sake makes sense in some negotiating contexts, but the sub silentio objective here was to jerry-rig yet another argument to wield against Israel and its fateful decision whether or not to strike Iran. Obama, fearing that strike more than an Iranian nuclear weapon, clearly needed greater international pressure on Jerusalem. And Jerusalem fully understands that Israel was the real target of the Geneva negotiations. How, therefore, should Israel react?
Most importantly, the deal leaves the basic strategic realities unchanged. Iran’s nuclear program was, from its inception, a weapons program, and it remains one today. Even modest constraints, easily and rapidly reversible, do not change that fundamental political and operational reality. And while some already-known aspects of Iran’s nuclear program are returned to enhanced scrutiny, the undeclared and likely unknown military work will continue to expand, thus recalling the drunk looking for his lost car keys under the street lamp because of the better lighting.
Moreover, the international climate of opinion against a strike will only harden during the next six months. Capitalizing on the deal, Iran’s best strategy is to accelerate the apparent pace of rapprochement with the all-too-eager West. The further and faster Iran can move, still making only superficial, easily reversible concessions in exchange for dismantling the sanctions regime, the greater the international pressure against Israel using military force. Iran will not suddenly, Ahmadinejad-style, openly defy Washington or Jerusalem and trumpet cheating and violations. Instead, Tehran will go to extraordinary lengths to conceal its activities, working for example in new or unknown facilities and with North Korea, or shaving its compliance around the edges. The more time that passes, the harder it will be for Israel to deliver a blow that substantially retards the Iranian program.
Undoubtedly, an Israeli strike during the interim deal would be greeted with outrage from all the expected circles. But that same outrage, or more, would also come further down the road. In short, measured against the expected reaction even in friendly capitals, there is never a “good” time for an Israeli strike, only bad and worse times. Accordingly, the Geneva deal does not change Israel’s strategic calculus even slightly, unless the Netanyahu government itself falls prey to the psychological warfare successfully waged so far by the ayatollahs. That we will know only as the days unfold.
Israel still must make the extremely difficult judgment whether it will stand by as Iran maneuvers effortlessly around a feckless and weak White House, bolstering its economic situation while still making progress on the nuclear front, perhaps less progress on some aspects of its nuclear work than before the deal, but more on others.
And what can critics of the Geneva deal, in Washington and other Western capitals, do? They can try to advance the sanctions legislation pending in the Senate over administration objections, for the political symbolism if nothing else. Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to succeed over the administration’s near-certain opposition. Tehran judges correctly that they have Obama obediently moving in their direction, with the European Union straining at the bit for still-more relaxation of the sanctions regimes.
Instead, those opposing Obama’s “Munich moment” in Geneva (to borrow a Kerry phrase from the Syrian crisis), should focus on the larger and more permanent strategic problem: A terrorist, nuclear Iran still threatens American interests and allies, and almost certainly means widespread nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. A nuclear Iran would also be essentially invulnerable, providing a refuge that al Qaeda leaders hiding in Afghan and Pakistani caves could only dream of.
So in truth, an Israeli military strike is the only way to avoid Tehran’s otherwise inevitable march to nuclear weapons, and the proliferation that will surely follow. Making the case for Israel’s exercise of its legitimate right of self-defense has therefore never been more politically important. Whether they are celebrating in Tehran or in Jerusalem a year from now may well depend on how the opponents of the deal in Washington conduct themselves.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06.